Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review: The Stature of Waiting

This is a book that was recommended to me, I believe 14 years ago, by the former archbishop of York on some kind of preordination retreat. Only now have I got around to reading it.

It is a fairly short book-length meditation on passivity: the condition (the author argues) we are all likely to experience at some time, and which is perhaps increasingly prevelant in our time.

By passivity ('passion', or waiting) Vanstone means that uncomfortable condition of being made subject to something beyond our control - illness, unemployment, frustration at work, old age. These are things that rob us of our power and independence, and thus potentially of our dignity and self-worth.

Indeed Vanstone predicts that technology will not necessarily increase our independence and sphere of autonomous action, but in many cases instead make us even more susceptible to to frustration as we depend on even greater systems beyond our control.

Being made a 'patient', being rendered a passive subject by illness or unemployment is clearly a bad thing. And yet Vanstone notes that the passion narratives in Mark and John speak of almost nothing but Christ's passivity. (There a particularly nice study in ch. 2 of how verbs describing Jesus shift from active to passive in Mark, and in John how the images of energetic work and day give way to night and inactivity/powerlesness).

Western culture has typically mostly come to value production, creativity and those who can do active things. Vanstone offers a nice critique of any assumption that this is natural, pointing out that prior to the nineteenth century 'idleness' or 'leisure' was the mark of civility, not work. Rather, he argues, the valuing of activity (the work ethic) can be seen as the necessarily ideological myth that enables the growth of capitalism.

Vanstone notes though that we may be moving out of the capitalist phase and its need for producers, and instead we are perhaps moving towards the need for consumers (i.e. for passivity, once more). If so we need to reclaim the value of being rendered passive (and Vanstone gives some interesting examples of how even the ill or the weak can sometimes hold a key and powerful role in a society.)

Nevertheless the myth of activity remains, and Vanstone suggests it may ultimately be rooted in the Christian tradition of describing the God in whose image we are made as 'pure act' and all powerful creator, as impassible.

And yet are we to say that anyone who is inactive, reduced to dependence or passivity is less than human, or less fully made in God's image? Here Vanstone's careful exegetical work on the latter part of the Gospels revalidates 'passivity/dependence' by suggesting that the primary purpose of the Passion stories is not to show that Jesus death sacrificially atoned for us, but rather that his passion as a whole (his acceptance of being 'handed over' and loosing his freedom) gives dignity to all such experiences. 'Glory' is found as much in God's acceptance of passivity in Christ, in his waiting in love for a human response (will Israel's rulers turn to him?), not just in his actions.

Vanstone thus fundamentally modifies the view of God's impassibility. God is certainly not, by nature, dependent on the world, not manipulable by us, and thus is indeed impassible. However God voluntarily adopts passibility - God makes space for the other (us) to respond freely - in the loving hope of relationship. There is a wise insight that the lover is often depicted not as the active one, but as the one who patiently (passibly) waits. So it is shown to be in God, when the supreme moment of the revelation of God's glory in Jesus is his surrendering of himself into the hands of men.

Surrunder, passibility, suffering, receptivity are all, according to Vanstone, modes in which the world is endowed with meaning and significance. The world needs us to be more than just creators, we need also to be receivers: those who value life in their being made subject to it, who notice its value, beauty, even its terror. In doing this mere existence becomes endowed with grandeur.

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